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Winter Reading: Arnhem – the Battle for the Bridges

February 17, 2019

I suppose most of us who’ve watched films and TV series about the Second World War – Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers being good examples – would agree that war is hell. Those who have taken part in combat over the past eight decades will not need convincing. But occasionally a book comes along that offers a further definition: war is chaos. I’ve not read any description of a battle that better illustrates the point than Antony Beevor’s Arnhem – The Battle for the Bridges.

I’ve read most of Beevor’s books. He’s a superb military historian. His narratives on D-Day, Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin are compelling, not just because they describe the events but because they tell the stories of those who took part in them, either as participants or bystanders. Military campaigns are carried out by ordinary human beings, not just by generals sitting in tents peering at maps. Beevor’s histories paint war as a set of human experiences.

Arnhem is about Operation Market Garden. It was an airborne attack aimed at opening up a corridor from the Netherlands across the Rhine into north Germany. It was risky, and it failed, costing thousands of casualties among the British, American and Polish forces that took part. Not to mention the German deaths, and those of numerous civilians who these days would be referred to as collateral damage. Both sides, Allied and German, fought bravely. But the objective of ending the war by Christmas 1944 was not achieved.

Beevor’s book contains the usual mix of analysis and human stories. He fills us with a sense of foreboding as he describes all the optimistic assumptions that underpinned the operation, and the tensions and miscommunications among the senior commanders.

Where things go somewhat awry for me, the reader, is when the action starts. His narrative is so granular that I became utterly confused trying to keep track of all the various armies, divisions, battalions and companies on both sides of the battle – or should I say the numerous simultaneous battles that took place over a wide area. The German units are even more difficult to decipher than the allied ones. There seemed an infinite number of variants. Some units named after their commanders, others belonging to this or that panzer division. As for the ranks, I spent so much time referring to the list of SS officer designations to figure out what a hauptsturmfuhrer did, as opposed to a standartenfuhrer or a brigadefuhrer that I eventually gave up and let them all wash over me.

The book is meticulously researched and full of necessary detail. But I found myself no more able to figure out the big picture than the poor bloody infantry on the ground, dropped into fields, shot at on the way down and struggling to coalesce under commanders who were often unable to communicate with each other or headquarters because their radios either had the wrong crystals or lacked the signal range to cover the distances.

If it was Beevor’s intent to portray the chaos of battle by describing a series of small battles in various locations fought by soldiers who had no more certainty about what was happening than the evidence of their own eyes, then he succeeded magnificently. The situation was constantly changing. New units were created from the decimated remnants of others. Field hospitals changed hands on a daily basis as German and allied medics struggled side-by-side with the assistance of Dutch civilians to save lives, often losing theirs in the midst of continual barrages by artillery, mortars and anti-tank weapons.

In retrospect, the whole affair was badly planned. Advice that might have saved the day from commanders and Dutch exiles who knew the ground well was brushed aside because of an arrogant faith in the plan. The planners also underestimated the strength of the German forces awaiting them. The spikiest general of them all, Montgomery, frequently got up the noses of his American subordinates. His boss, Eisenhower, while notionally the supreme commander, spent much of his time refereeing disputes and calming the egos of his head-butting generals. Teamwork, it seems, was a quality demanded of the ground forces while the senior commanders were content to fight their turf wars.

Back on the ground, Beevor admirably captures the courage of combatants on both sides, and the leadership of officers like John Frost, who held out at Arnhem for four days against overwhelming opposition. For the local population the joy of liberation turned into nightmare as their towns were reduced to rubble. Many of them were active participants. The Dutch underground joined in the battle, and the women cared for the injured. Even in the heat of battle, soldiers would be surprised to see shutters raised by civilians offering them cups of tea.

Aside from the suffering during the battle itself, the saddest consequence was what happened afterwards. The Allies remained in control of the southern part of the Netherlands. Those still under German control suffered harsh reprisals for their support of the liberation forces. Arnhem itself was depopulated, looted and destroyed. And the occupiers systematically stripped the country of all the food they could find and sent it back to Germany. The result was the Hunger Winter, in which thousands of civilians died of starvation. The allies made no further attempts to liberate the country until the end of the war. Their rationale was that the sooner Germany was defeated, the sooner they could come to the aid of the starving. It’s something to remember when you visit the cobbled streets of Delft and wander across the canals of Amsterdam.

I’m profoundly grateful that my courage has never been tested on a battlefield such as Arnhem. I’m equally grateful that the European nations that took part in the conflict have lived in peace for the past seventy-four years – something that those who wish to see us separated again from the continent appear to be taking for granted.

Perhaps they should read this book.

From → Books, History, UK, USA

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